Sakura Wars is overwhelming popularity in Japan. Up until March 2008, the franchise had its own store complete with a Sakura Wars inspired cafe. The series has spawned a plethora of sequels, side stories, novels, anime adaptations, and even live stage shows. Being the fifth game in the main series, and first to ever be released in the United States, can Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love hope to share some of the same success that it had overseas?
First and foremost, Sakura Wars is a visual novel game broken into different segments. Chapters unfold like a typical anime episode, featuring general daily routines, character dialogues, and eventually, the forces of evil threatening the city. The story takes place in 1928, following a young Shinjiro Taiga who has been assigned as the squad leader of the New York Assault Force. Taiga quickly learns that America is very different from Japan. Apart from defending the city, he must also earn his squad's trust first as a musical director and military leader.
The majority of the game progression consists of text based interactions with other characters, with occasional pauses for players to choose from a number of responses. Most of these have a fixed timer for players to respond. Choices affect the player's relationship with other characters, resulting in a positive, negative, or neutral relationship. At different points in the story, minigames requiring players to follow directional pad presses and analog stick rotations in a "quick time sequence" fashion will appear. If successful, it will raise players' bond with their team, which will also increase their strength in combat. A stronger bond can also open up new dialogue choices.
Other minigames such as the Camratron, which has the player take photos of certain characters or scenes, can also increase the team's bond. Positive choices typically relate to the character's personality, for example Chieron Archer is a lawyer and players will want to answer in a 'legal and truthful' manner if they want to win her favor. Bright and cheerful cowgirl Gemini Sunrise loves samurai, and any responses relating to the Bushido code will please her. Players can also end up in a relationship with one of the girls, offering multiple endings.
The second segment of the game consists of combat, which is where the graphics really shine. The mechanical units, called STAR, are gorgeously rendered with impressive attack animations that will satisfy most mecha fans while background environments are a mixed bag with some being rather bland. Players control their team in a turn based strategy fashion. Every action including attacking, moving, guarding, healing, or using a special attack requires action points. Players are given a total of six points for each character and must strategically use them before ending their turn. Combat consists of ground and aerial battles, with the latter being relatively similar to the former apart from the fact that characters will launch missiles instead of attacking with melee weapons. The game does give hints on how to tackle some of the more challenging bosses; however, players can attempt to use brute force to defeat one with little planning. As mentioned previously, characters grow stronger by the bond they have with the player, completely tossing out the tradtional experience point level system. Please a team member in the chapter, and she will easily dispatch enemies in one turn. Angering a team member, on the other hand, can severely weaken her in combat.
Players will also on occasion be left to explore the beautifully rendered 3D environments of New York, a pleasant surprise given that the game is almost five years old. The city is broken into different districts with a top view map for players to select their destinations. Taiga can learn more information from talking to the locals and bond with his teammates. Unfortunately, interacting with any characters during this mode will progress time. Early in the game, the city was attacked with an explosion near the player. One of the team members suggested to investigate the source. In typical RPG fashion, I decided to talk with all the locals first. Before even finishing, I was informed my time was up and was forced to head back to headquarters, ending the scene without having even gone to the explosion site. I really wished the game had allowed characters more free roaming options.
My main concern about the game is the save system. Veterans of visual novels know that saving religiously will allow them to backtrack just in case if they make a bad choice. Here, attempting to do the same takes forever. This is most likely a hardware limitation, but still a grave annoyance, especially when choices affect the overall strength of your team. In the beginning, some of the choices pop up unexpectedly with extremely quick timers that caught me unprepared. After reloading from my last save, I was severely disappointed in a lack of a skip or fast forward button. (We have been informed that after completing the game once, players do unlock a fast forward button by either holding down L2 or R2.) Like some other NIS America's releases, some of the character's have been renamed for localization purposes. Rikaritta Aries is now Rosita Aries, and Sagiitta Weinberg has been renamed Cheiron Archer.
Sakura Wars: Farewell My Love is a unique game, with eight chapters total. The early chapters took me roughly two hours to complete. The only aspect I am concerned about is whether typical American gamers will be as receptive to this game.
Bottom Line: Intended Audience Rating
An excellent visual novel that keep a good pacing with mini games and features beautifully rendered mechs, given that the game is nearly half a decade old, that will satisfy most fanboys.
4 Out of 5 STAR Mechs
Bottom Line: Overall Rating
This game is really for the fans; being one myself, I am extremely excited that the game is being released in English; however, as an avid gamer, I found it to be a little dull and repetitive. Sakura Wars definitely is one of those cult games, and isn't for everyone, but if you've been looking for something new to try and want to see what all the big fuss has been for the last 15 years, give this a shot.
3 Out of 5 STAR Mechs